Reverse culture shock: Identity in the UK

24/09/2013 22:30


Standing at the exit of a large supermarket car park I'm trying to hitch a ride in my home country, a style of transport that's rarely used here. Some say I'd have more success if a girl was with me; we'll see. I'm faithful that people here aren't as fearful as they say they are. You're never as alone as when you're putting your thumb out to passing cars, especially in the UK, which is why in these moments you connect with yourself much better. In the time that I stand there I look carefully at the hundreds of averted faces. Here so many assurances are expected in basic arrangements; natural trust in others erodes without them. Returning here, ludicrously I'm somehow surprised by the anonymity that I expected to find – caught mid-decision over whether I'm fascinated by it. I believe, underneath, that I am. Naturally I should wait for my head to stop moving first, but there's no time to waste. I'm thinking in motion while rooted to the spot with my thumb stuck out. I'm experiencing a change of scale. I'm recalibrating my home.


After 5 minutes of waiting and raising my thumb, a couple of gym-goers pull up in a mirrored Audi to take a rushed photo of me on their iphones before screeching off again in their silver cocoon. I'm their lunchtime material  my arm, side of the road persona, my desert sandals, my thinking. They're whipped up in the ferocity of a sandwich purchase, so I jeer at them for sport. I'm back in my country, where I'll hear words again.... words that I recognise and love; fizzy words like "conjecture" that make the mind jump to attention and lift a smile of prescient, crisp simplicity. The downsides of course are the pleonasms; not being able to switch away an understanding of the incessant background talk of others  of your native language  impossible as it is to reduce this to meaningless music that doesn't much penetrate the psyche. Then a wonderful man, enthusiastic about the world, glances at my cardboard sign through his wide windscreen and pulls over his van to pick me up, no assurances. 10 minutes. A contender for a UK hitchhiking record. World travellers and white van men.... some of us just aren't afraid of anyone. He learns new things from me and I'm transported. We both win.

I've been racking my brain for over two weeks to recover the details of a passage I read. It expressed, in the most optimistic terms, a warm and appreciative feeling for one's home country. My memory sees me sitting in a particular slippery cold leather chair reading the book it contains, but the title on the spine remains blurred, leaving me barking up the wrong trees of other authors' works that I convince myself contain the paragraph. But today it was recovered; after many months the passage remains a great discovery and, despite my confusion, I still understand it..... more so perhaps. It's a patient speech; patient like our struggle with identity. Looking over it feels like meeting the best of old friends again. It cuddles the reader with all the lovely impassiveness of a barrister comforting their client.


"You may never have thought what your country really is, he continued, placing his hand on my shoulder; it is everything around you, everything that has raised and nourished you, everything that you have loved. This countryside that you see, these houses, these trees, these girls laughing as they pass, that is your country! The laws that protect you, the bread that rewards your labour, the words you speak, the joy and sorrow that come from the people and things in whose midst you live, that is your country! [...] You see it, you breathe it, everywhere! Imagine your rights and your duties, your affections and your needs, your memories and your gratitude, gather all that together under a single name and that will be your country." [From Un philosophe sous les toits (An attic philosopher), by Émile Souvestre, quoted in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh]


So far, for the most part, I've been voluntarily exiled in a remote corner of the UK, in our internationally attractive England. I've meandered and meandered, tight-lipped and listening, asking myself every so often as I'm stepping along: "What does this country mean to me?" I have the desire to contribute something original to it, but struggle to sum up my everyday affinity for my home. I've seen friends, strangers, and alleyways in half quaint, half drab tree swing towns, and propelled myself into our forgetful, shop-infested cities for a robust sniff around. Already in this short time I've seen love, disappointment, humour, boredom, fickle cheeks, confusion and contentment, ego racing, placidity, and good naturedness. I've seen them in others and I've seen them in myself. Going to the supermarket for provisions is still confusing; seeing people go about their business while I remember the good friends I've left behind – still wearing them like cotton clothes as I appeal to dozens of strangers who haven't yet seen my smile. 


The things that interest me are overlooked. My flowing dilemma as a writer is whether to popularise them in my own country or to keep them for myself – remain an outsider. I'm searching the UK for every mysterious spark. Books thrown in a blink, I'm there documenting it. I'd like to warm my country from its shiver. I have unforgettable faith in my well-branded home. Reverse culture shock electrifies me in disguise, like your favourite song playing backwards.



Hitchhiking, have your say...

The home front

Date: 26/09/2013 | By: Kenneth

"...these girls laughing as they pass (in their silver Audi), this is your country." And sounds like it could be mine, too. I hope you're enjoying your time in the UK and the insights and conjecture it provides!

Re: The home front

Date: 27/09/2013 | By: Martin G

And I'm gleefully throwing an uninsured Kafka hardback through their windscreen. They still wouldn't read it.

(If there are any Audi pilots out there who do allow themselves time to read Kafka then please refute me at full speed)

Perhaps I'll write a novel about unrepaired bonnet damage anxiety syndrome. I'd call it "Borrowed Perfection"

Thanks for the chuckle Ken, love it.

"I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things" (Franz Kafka)

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